Strange Beautiful Music is the title of Joe Satriani’s “musical memoir” which was published in 2017, a book I read recently and highly recommend. It’s also the title of his record of 2002 and the name of his publishing company. It’s a well-chosen name, for of all the adjectives that come to mind when listening to the music of Joe Satriani the one that stands out to me is “strange.” Beautiful yes, but strange even more so. I wish more artists had some of that strangeness, more philosophers too. His music isn’t what you’d expect. It’s very difficult to describe or classify—another mark in its favor—and while his records have enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success this artist may not be the household name that some of his guitar-playing peers are. He isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having eighteen studio albums to his credit over the last three and a half decades. He has never won a Grammy award, although he has been nominated often. He’s nowhere to be found on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists, and I can’t remember the last time I heard one of his songs on the radio. He’s not mainstream enough for any of that, and this is exactly what makes him interesting. Satriani makes his home on the fringes of modern music, and this is one of the qualities that keeps his listeners coming back.
I first came across this artist in the late 90s when I was rummaging through a record store and came across an interesting looking album titled Chrystal Planet. I had heard the name Joe Satriani somewhere before, and the guy at the cash register recommended it. I remember asking him, who does Satriani sound like? Nobody, he said. A good answer and, I soon learned, an accurate one. So I bought it and in the last twenty odd years I’ve listened to that album probably a few hundred times. As new records of his came out I bought all of them too, as well as most of his early ones. The first thing that strikes you about his music is the obvious technical virtuosity. This guy plays very fast—always impressive in a rock guitarist, but there are a lot of guitarists who play fast and are excellent technicians. That alone has never really impressed me, or not for long. Their playing needs to have an individualistic and soulful quality and it helps a lot if they write their own music, as Satriani does. This artist doesn’t sound like he’s following trends or selling a brand. He’s the opposite of ordinary, and if he doesn’t have a shelf full of Grammys I’m guessing he’s all right with that.
What is it about his music that’s so strange? He does have a penchant for writing songs about aliens, robots, mystical potato-heads, weird science fiction stuff that you’re not going to hear from many others, but his idiosyncrasies go far beyond this. Things become stranger still when you listen to his body of work as a whole, hearing him switch from one style and genre to the next with seeming ease, from heavy rock to blues, jazz, prog rock, soul, and whatever else he’s in the mood for. His newest offering, Shapeshifting—a record appropriately enough about change—finds him playing a reggae number which seems to fit seemlessly into the rest of the album. And then there’s Chickenfoot, a rather improbable rock and roll supergroup that he formed in 2008 with Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, and Chad Smith, also his various incarnations of G3, among other projects over the years. But what I’ve found strangest of all about his music is that after listening to his records probably more than any other recording artist over the last two decades I somehow never tire of his music. Even my very favorite albums by other artists I can only listen to a finite number of times; otherwise I begin to tire of them, but not so with Satriani. I really couldn’t say why not. Yesterday I spent all day outside doing yardwork while listening to several of his albums, some for about the hundredth time, and I was struck again by the fact that I never tire of any of them. I’ve always thought that one of the criteria by which you can judge any artist or any work of art is whether it keeps you coming back, and in the case of music not just whether it grabs you upon first hearing but whether it lends itself to repeated listening, whether you can find something interesting in it every time, and in the case of this songwriter you certainly can.
In interviews Satriani is constantly talking about Jimi Hendrix, his main musical inspiration and influence. You can certainly hear echoes of Hendrix in Satriani’s playing, but he’s hardly a clone of that artist. He’s far too interesting for that and too free-spirited. He’s out there doing his thing, indeed way out there, so far from the mainstream that I suspect he’s never even seen it. He sounds like he’s at the ends of the earth, like he’s been walking on hot coals or playing with explosives. This man is not a guitar player, he’s a wizard and an extremist. One of his early records is called The Extremist, but all his records could be called that. After eighteen albums, he’s still going strong, and the songwriting and his playing both continue to improve. Speaking about his newest album and what his next move might be, Satriani says this: “There are two things that always seem to pop up. One is that you want to do it again somehow and the other is that you’re kind of running as fast as you can in the other direction. It’s some sort of bizarre artistic response to something that you’ve just finished. Whether it’s successful or not, you just can’t help but say, ‘Now, I’ve got to do something entirely different.’” Not a lot of self-satisfied complacency there. Whatever his next record will bring, I’m betting it will be something different yet again. He hasn’t made a career the way that some in his profession do, by repeating themselves, following a formula, and finding ever more ways of saying the same thing, but in almost Dylanesque fashion reinventing his sound and his style and without seeming to care in the least whether it will get him on the cover of Rolling Stone, if anyone still reads that.
With all due respect to the venerable personages at that magazine, Joe Satriani deserves far more than a place somewhere on the list of the greatest songwriting guitarists but in my opinion a place somewhere near the top of that list. What keeps his listeners coming back isn’t his technical virtuosity alone or even primarily but his songwriting. A small handful of guitarists can play at his level, and when you combine sheer playing ability with remarkable songwriting, a masterful imagination, longevity and a very large body of work, the whole package puts this artist in a class with few peers. I hope this guy never retires.